Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford


  • Niloufar LuekeEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_2429-1


Reproductive Success Sexual Selection Gender Stereotype Parental Investment Secondary Sexual Characteristic 
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According to self-categorization theory (Turner et al. 1987), self-perception is influenced by salient self-categories, and the ascription of ingroup-defining characteristics to the self is defined as self-stereotyping.


Self-categorization theory (Turner et al. 1987) posits that group-level processes occur through the process of categorizing or cognitively grouping the self as either similar to or distinct from another class of stimuli. One can categorize the self on a personal level, as a unique individual, different from other individuals (based on idiosyncratic attributes), or conversely, categorization can be done on a social level, in terms of identification with social groups, which would render one’s cognition to be filtered through a salient social identity. The operation of self-concept on a personal or social level is thought to be dependent on the perceiver’s contextually driven frame of reference and the subsequent categories that may become salient (Turner et al. 1987; Oakes 1987).

Self-categorization theory explains that social identity emerges by way of depersonalization, whereby the self is perceived less as a distinct idiosyncratic individual and more as an interchangeable member of a social group. It is through awareness of ingroup norm or prototype that ingroup assimilation and the sense of interchangeability can occur, as prototypes serve to describe and prescribe group appropriate ways to think, feel, and behave, thereby establishing normative behavior among members. Group-based self-construal, and in general intragroup processes, is fostered through the process of self-stereotyping, which involves ascribing ingroup-defining traits to the self, and in doing so enhancing the similarity between self and ingroup members, while augmenting the contrast between the ingroup self and outgroup members. The objective of this entry is to discuss self-stereotyping when sex is a salient category (i.e., me, as a woman, versus you, as a man), while deliberating on how gender-based self-stereotyping can be understood from an evolutionary perspective.

Self-Stereotyping by Sex

Group identification entails the incorporation of an external social category into internal self-definition, thereby transforming self-perception and behavior to become consistent with ingroup stereotypic characteristics and norms. Self-categorization can be based on a novel, never-before encountered social category, such as arbitrarily assigned group, or a preexisting one, such as sex (or gender). In instances when sex category becomes primed or salient, general knowledge about gender stereotypes may become activated, which may momentarily shape an individual’s self-concept based on the sex-category membership they identify with. This leads to gender-based self-stereotyping. For example, simply put, if an individual woman categorizes herself as a woman in contrast to a man, through her sex-based social category identification (“us women”), her self-perception and behavior will become depersonalized to accentuate her similarities to other women, and attenuate her idiosyncratic personal differences from other women, thereby enhancing perceptually her stereotypical difference from men (Hogg and Turner 1987).

As Hogg and Turner (1987) explained, it is important to note that while social stereotypes are shared representations of the defining features of a particular social category, they are nonetheless still cognitively represented by individuals, who possess their own individual idiosyncrasies shaped by personal experiences; in other words, the social stereotype can be thought of as superimposed on the individual stereotype, and for that reason social stereotypes, while shared, are not necessarily rigidly invariant across individuals. With that said, the individual idiosyncratic self-concept will be significantly overshowed by the similarities embedded in the social, shared self-concept, leading to stereotypical behavior among members of an ingroup (Hogg and Turner 1987).

Evolutionary Reasoning on Own-Sex/Gender Self-Stereotyping

It is well known that there are different beliefs about the characteristics associated with women and men. These differential attributes are the basis for gender-based categories that distinguish the male social group from the female group. When sex category becomes salient, identification with a gender/sex category engenders alignment of self-perception and behavior to match one’s own-sex group, leading to stereotypic behavior that ultimately highlights one’s similarity to the prototype of their gender ingroup, while simultaneously augmenting stereotypical differences from the gender-outgroup. It is conceivable to link the content of gender-based stereotypes to adaptive traits that have been favored through sexual selection, and to also conceive of engagement in gender-based stereotypic behavior (self-stereotyping) as a way of propagating evolved mating strategies. As it will be elaborated on, the different sex or reproductive roles of men and women point to differential adaptive challenges in the context of reproduction and mating. The different adaptive problems may have engendered differences in the psychologies of men and women that contribute to gender stereotypes, and the engagement in gender-based stereotypical behavior may serve as a means for easily identifying whether a particular individual is a man or a woman in order to facilitate sexual selection. Gender-based self-stereotyping can therefore be thought of as a form of secondary sexual characteristic that taps into our evolved mating preferences and strategies.

Sexual selection refers to the processes associated with any aspects of breeding behavior, such as competition with members of the same sex and species over mates, as well as the process of mate selection (Darwin 1871). The dynamics associated with sexual selection are thought to be influenced by the degree to which each sex focuses their reproductive effort on parenting or on mating (for a review, see Geary 2002). For a woman, a 9-month pregnancy is the minimum obligatory investment to produce a child, whereas for a man, one act of sexual intercourse is the minimum investment required to produce that same child. Given a woman’s larger parental investment (e.g., nine months gestation, post-birth nurturing via lactation and breastfeeding), they are predicted to desire certain characteristics in men that would lead to an increase in reproductive success. A woman’s sexual selection is predicted to include competition for men who are willing and able to make the most parental investment – such as willingness and ability to invest economically in raising their offspring and high social standing or dominance, which are typically correlated with resource acquisition – in order to ensure that the offspring reaches reproductive age; while for men who do parentally invest, mate selection criteria includes health, fertility, and sexual fidelity (Davies and Shackelford 2008), which are cues linked to probability of either immediate or future reproductive potential.

Women, cross-culturally, place a greater importance on good financial prospects of a marriage partner than do men and value qualities linked to resource acquisition, such as ambition, industriousness, and social status (for a review, see Buss 2007); similarly, female American undergraduate students were found to prefer, far more than men, mates who show ambition and industriousness, which are qualities linked to securing higher salaries and occupational status (for a review, see Davies and Shackelford 2008). Women’s greater preference for mates who are able to economically invest in their offspring may have produced sexual selection pressure for men to have an evolved psychology that motivates meeting these preferences (Shackelford and Davies 2008). Indeed, this may have been the case, as women’s universal mate selection criteria resemble the characteristics found in male-specific gender stereotypes, which include attributes such as strong, controlling, assertive, and achievement-oriented (for a review, see Burgess and Borgida 1999). Interestingly, previous studies of the behavioral tactics that men use to attract or retain mates have demonstrated that “men tend to display and bestow resources on the women they are trying to attract and retain. They tend to denigrate their rivals by impugning the rival’s professional prospects, such as mentioning that the rival is lazy, lacks ambition, or lacks clear goals in life” (for a review, see Buss 2007). Men’s engagement in tactics that involve displaying their own resources, ambitiousness, and physical and social dominance can be conceived of as a demonstration of men’s engagement in sex-based self-stereotyping that has roots in evolutionarily adaptive sexual selection endeavors.

Cross-culturally, men place a greater importance on a marriage partner’s physical attractiveness than do women, by showing preference for cues to youth and physical appearance (e.g., full lips, smooth and clear skin, lustrous hair, and low ratio of hips to waist). These cues are valued, as they have previously been shown to have a robust link to a woman’s health and fertility, and serve as strong predictive factors in either immediate or future reproductive success. Men’s greater preference placed on physical attractiveness is hypothesized to have resulted in women evolving a psychology that motivates them to use strategies that facilitates meeting this preference (Davies and Shackelford 2008). Women are indeed found to have success with tactics involving appearance enhancement more so than men, and behavioral strategies used by females to attract or retain mates include not only putting more effort into appearance enhancement but derogating rival’s by pointing out their physical flaws (for a review, see Buss 2007). With respect to parental investment, the greatest threat to the reproductive success of a man is being cuckolded into raising children and directing economic investment toward children that are not genetically related to him. This may have led to men having evolved a psychology that causes them to prefer women who are not sexually promiscuous and are likely to be sexually faithful to them. Cross-culturally, men do place a greater importance on the chastity or virginity of a potential marriage partner (for a review, see Buss 2007), and indeed females have been shown to have success with mating tactics that involve displaying their own sexual fidelity and impugning rivals as being sexually promiscuous (for a review, see Davies and Shackelford 2008). Other female stereotypical traits include attributes such as being warm, caring, deferential, and interpersonally skilled (for a review, see Burgess and Borgida 1999), which are agreeable and nurturing traits that have been adaptive due to promoting the survival of their children. Thus, gender-specific self-stereotyping may reflect the inherited strategies that our ancestors have relied on as they faced many different sex-specific adaptive problems in the context of reproduction and mating. Gender-based self-stereotyping may therefore serve as behavioral signals of an individual’s ability to successfully fulfill their respective sex roles based on strategies that maximize reproductive success.


Reproductive success, or the passing of genes to the next generation, involves not only producing offspring but also ensuring that at least some of these offspring survive to reproductive maturity. Two different sexual strategies can accomplish this: one is the “quality” strategy which consists of heavily investing in a few offspring to increase their individual chances of reaching reproductive maturity, and the other is a “quantity” strategy, which consists of producing as many offspring as possible, in the hope that some will survive to adulthood (Cunningham and Russell 2004). Based on the aforementioned parental investment theory (Trivers 1972), evolutionary psychologists have argued that the “quantity” strategy would primarily benefit men, whereas the “quality” strategy would benefit women. The differing reproductive roles and beneficial strategies (quantity versus quality) may have created divergent selection pressures for each sex, paving the way for the evolvement of differential secondary sexual characteristics to meet sex-specific challenges. Examples of these secondary sexual characteristics are competition and aggression among males over limited fertile females, or nurturing qualities that would promote child bearing and care in females. These evolved traits and behaviors are attributes that parallel the content of gender stereotypes, and may therefore reflect characteristics that have been selected and inherited based on the sexual selection pressures expressed by preferred mates. Exhibiting gender-specific characteristics that are valued by a potential mate through gender-based self-stereotyping may be an inherited strategy that facilitates sexual and reproductive success via expressing increased potential in these domains.

Gender-stereotypes could be conceived of as sex-specific attributes that have enhanced the mating strategy and success of our ancestor, and self-stereotyping, when gender is salient, may be a way of behaviorally displaying evolved features that signal a promise for reproductive success.



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© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ball State UniversityMuncieUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Carey Fitzgerald
    • 1
  1. 1.University of South Carolina - BeaufortBlufftonUSA